Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2014
Immigration activists have sharply criticized President Obama for a rising volume of deportations, labeling him the “deporter in chief” and staging large protests that have harmed his standing with some Latinos, a key group of voters for Democrats.
But the portrait of a steadily increasing number of deportations rests on statistics that conceal almost as much as they disclose. A closer examination shows that immigrants living illegally in most of the continental U.S. are less likely to be deported today than before Obama came to office, according to immigration data.
Expulsions of people who are settled and working in the United States have fallen steadily since his first year in office, and are down more than 40% since 2009.
On the other side of the ledger, the number of people deported at or near the border has gone up–primarily as a result of changing who gets counted in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s deportation statistics.
The vast majority of those border crossers would not have been treated as formal deportations under most previous administrations. If all removals were tallied, the total sent back to Mexico each year would have been far higher under those previous administrations than it is now.
The shift in who gets tallied helped the administration look tough in its early years but now may be backfiring politically. Immigration advocates plan protests across the country this week around what they say will be the 2 millionth deportation under Obama–a mark expected to be hit in the next few days. And Democratic strategists fret about a decline in Latino voter turnout for this fall’s election.
Until recent years, most people caught illegally crossing the southern border were simply bused back into Mexico in what officials called “voluntary returns,” but which critics derisively termed “catch and release.” Those removals, which during the 1990s reached more 1 million a year, were not counted in Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s deportation statistics.
Now, the vast majority of border crossers who are apprehended get fingerprinted and formally deported. The change began during the George W. Bush administration and accelerated under Obama. The policy stemmed in part from a desire to ensure that people who had crossed into the country illegally would have formal charges on their records.
In the Obama years, all of the increase in deportations has involved people picked up within 100 miles of the border, most of whom have just recently crossed over. In 2013, almost two-thirds of deportations were in that category.
At the same time, the administration largely ended immigration roundups at workplaces and shifted investigators into targeting business owners who illegally hired foreign workers.
“If you are a run-of-the-mill immigrant here illegally, your odds of getting deported are close to zero–it’s just highly unlikely to happen,” John Sandweg, until recently the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in an interview.
Deportations of people apprehended in the interior of the U.S., which the immigration agency defines as more than 100 miles from the border, dropped from 237,941 in Obama’s first year to 133,551 in 2013, according to immigration data. Four out of five of those deportees came to the attention of immigration authorities after criminal convictions.
Many of those convictions are related to crossing the border–the other big consequence of the change in the way border removals are handled.